Becoming Eliza

This evening, I am looking forward to the opening of a truly special theater project to me. For the past three months, I’ve been working on the role of Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion, a role made all the more special by the fact that I will likely be taking a break from stage acting for a while after closing, and the fact that the director is a dear friend of mine and one of the first directors I ever worked with when I started acting again in this area.


Eliza is also just a fantastic role in a classic play. She’s an early feminist figure, but from a time when feminism often just meant you didn’t beat your wife. Shaw uses the play to not only make some pretty strong feminist statements, but also to dissect the conflict among the classes in early 20th-century London. Eliza’s father, Alfred Doolittle, is actually my favorite character because he has these extended and eloquent speeches about the plight of the working man, not only because of his poverty, but how he must live up to middle-class ideals in order to get any help from his “betters.” The interplay between the poor characters and the wealthier characters, as well as between the lower- and upper- class characters paint a complex picture of social struggle at all levels. In fact, the play is rather skillful at illustrating the concept of privilege and how it can prevent a person from seeing the real harm they might be doing to another.

But apart from social commentary, Eliza is a character who both has to grow as a person, changing her speech and demeanor, as well as maintain a spark of defiance that led her to Higgins and his lessons in the first place. The first part is work. The second part is difficult.

The first part starts with the fact that, apart from Higgins, Eliza has the most lines in the play. And when presenting a playwright with Shaw’s stature, one must do one’s best to be letter-perfect. After all, I did not write this play, and I ought to recite the lines that are there. I’ve been spending time in private study with my script nearly every day since beginning the show, and hope to go into opening night with that strong foundation.

Then, there is the vocal level. Eliza presents a particular challenge to me because neither of her dialects are ones to which I have any natural claim. As an American, I hope I’ve been able to develop a decent Received Pronunciation (RP) British dialect, but even that is only half the battle. The new challenge in this was learning the cockney dialect, particularly a cockney dialect that is not much used anymore. To learn RP, I can watch the BBC at length, but there are no modern examples of the cockney dialect, as Eliza would have spoken it. The closest examples come from modern historical dramas, like Call the Midwife. And then, because I am presenting this on stage to an American audience, I have to learn my cockney well enough to know where I can and ought to tone it down to avoid Eliza becoming completely unintelligible.

Finally, Eliza must physically transform. Oh, I am not talking about the costumes and the makeup, although those whose job it is to see to those have performed admirably. I mean the transformation of her demeanor and bearing. Despite her underlying steely resolve, Eliza begins the play as a woman who both knows the brutality of a life of poverty and also lacks any training on how to carry herself like a lady. She must be fearful, despite her natural personal fortitude, and she must carry herself like someone who’s never been taught to stand up straight. The dancer in me bemoans the sloppy posture necessary to play Eliza in the first part of the play, but I persevered and was rewarded with a visible transformation and a sore lower back. After her transformation, I was able to revert to my natural state of upright, dancer’s posture with relish.

And so I go on the stage tonight with the weight of three months of rehearsal and a century of history weighing on my back, only to shake it off and finish the play standing upright: “a tower of strength, a consort battleship.”

On Enjoying Shakespeare

I’ve teased in the past about a recent project in which I’m involved. Well, we opened two weekends ago. I’ve spent the last few months rehearsing a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. I’ve loved to act since I was a young child, and I’ve been doing Shakespeare since I started in a local theater school’s company over 20 years ago, but I hadn’t had a chance to perform the Bard since returning to the stage two years ago after graduate school.

My first Shakespeare role was Ferdinand in The Tempest and it rather set the tone for many of my Shakespearean roles. I’ve played as many male characters as female ones. And that’s the beauty of Shakespeare: he creates characters that often transcend stereotypes and categories despite drawing on familiar tropes of comedy and tragedy. And I just love getting into these characters.

The language is what frightens some people when they think of Shakespeare, but the language is what I love. His words are his canvas and he paints beautiful pictures, both with the word meanings and with the sounds of the words themselves. My most recent role is that of Feste and he dallies nicely with words. It was a challenge to memorize some of his more mouthful pieces, but so, so fun to deliver them. He talks circles around most of the characters in the show (with the exception of the other two characters I’ve played in Twelfth Night in the past: Maria and Olivia).

But the language of Shakespeare truly has to be heard to be appreciated. Reading the text on the page has little of the same appeal. A colleague of mine commented that he’s decided to try to read his way through Shakespeare’s complete works, to which I responded with a grimace. That sounds like truly grim work. But a Shakespeare club? Get together a group of friends to read scenes from Shakespeare as a way of getting through the works? Fantastic! I suggested he at the very least look up films of the various plays that have had films made of them. So you don’t get much of the histories, but the more popular tragedies and comedies have some representation.

Above all, I think that most people take Shakespeare too seriously. He’s fun. He’s a playwright who chose to insert knee-slappingly funny bits into some of his most serious plays, often at the most intense points in the main action. He did this because he wasn’t catering to the enjoyers of high art, but the enjoyers of entertainment. Shakespeare is a reminder that sometimes in the darkest times, laughter is necessary. Sometimes you need the drunken porter or the nostalgic gravedigger to break up the intensity of life. Take the laughs as they come and let them temper the tragedy just a bit.

I’d love to hear anyone else’s views on Shakespeare, acted or read. And who wants to start a Shakespeare club?

My Vintage-Inspired Beauty Routine, An Interlude: Stage Makeup

Tonight is opening night for the show I’m in currently. Most of the shows in which I’ve performed have been period pieces, ranging from Victorian times to the 1970s, so my vintage-inspired beauty has transitioned nicely to my stage makeup routine. But I don’t want to be without my everyday makeup for the run of a show, and it’s nice not to cart things back and forth. So I have a less expensive version of my makeup bag to keep in the dressing room.

Most of the theaters in which I perform are smaller, black-box type theaters, and don’t require formal stage makeup. Those that are larger have refined enough lighting not to require a Ben Nye or Mehron stage makeup kit. So my “stage makeup” kit is a collection of drugstore makeup that works well.

I have a heavy-duty concealer from NYX, their Full-Coverage Concealer Jar, to cover undereye circles and larger blemishes. I layer this with NYX Mineral Stick foundation. It reminds me of Pan-Stik. It’s quick, too: I can just swipe on some stripes and blend it in. I keep a second pan of NYX Cream Blush in Glow to give my cheeks color. I like NYX cosmetics for the stage because they are inexpensive, but good quality, and they make quite a few things that are free of some of the chemicals I try to avoid. If I need to have a more powdery finish, or if the stage lights are particularly hot, I can also use Rimmel Stay Matte foundation.

With my base done, I move to eyes. I have two matte eyeshadows from Jane Cosmetics: Clay, a warm light-to-medium brown, and Birch, a darker, cooler brown. I use Birch in my crease to add dimension to my eyes, and then Clay to add further definition. I have two liquid eyeliners: a brown one from e.l.f. for a subtle look and for under my eyes, and a black Milani Eye Tech Extreme pen for heavier eye liner and cat’s-eyes. I also have a L’Oreal kajal pencil for very heavy black eye makeup. I finish off with NYX Le Frou Frou mascara.

On my lips, I tend to take from my Revlon lipstick collection if I need distinctive colors. For more natural looks, I use a Burt’s Bees tinted lip balm in Sweet Violet. It’s just enough color to make my lips visible from the stage, without looking too done. My Revlon lipsticks are serving me well for this show, which is partially set in the 1940s, the era of red lipstick. Also, I’m starting to move away from my Revlon lipsticks for every day use, but that is another post.

At the end of the night, I have to take it all off. Backstage, I keep a pack of Burt’s Bees makeup wipes for sensitive skin as my first line of defense. Then, when I get home, cold cream and a warm cloth gets rid of the rest. Even though I use standard makeup, it’s still a lot more makeup than I’m used to, so I make sure to take care of my skin well. Having an ultra-simplified nighttime routine makes it even easier to force myself to wash up, even when it’s hours later than I usually go to bed. And during weekends, and after the show, I give myself plenty of drawing clay masks, and pay plenty of attention to my skin to make sure I don’t end up with congestion and breakouts. And at the end of the run of a show, I like to go for a facial, just to tune things up and make sure there aren’t any problems waiting to come out.

A Very Busy Weekend Indeed

Well, I’m heading into Tech Week for the play in which I am currently involved, so the coming week promises to be hectic. We actually started yesterday, when I spent almost twelve hours out, moving and building set pieces, checking costumes, doing a cue-to-cue rehearsal, and then topped it all off with another audition in the evening!

But it all started Saturday. I realized that Sunday’s busy schedule meant I would not be free to prep food for my week. It was doubly critical to have healthy homemade food this week because tech means eating dinners out and having a lot of stress and not nearly enough sleep. So homemade breakfasts and lunches were essential. But they also had to be really quick, so I could throw them together even when I chose to sleep an extra half hour instead of getting up to get ready on time. I also wanted to make sure I had a healthy choice for building day Sunday because it looked like it was going to be all donuts and pizza and soda.

So I spent Saturday cooking. I made a winter vegetable lasagna that turned out pretty well. There are still one or two more tweaks to make before I deem it perfect and put it on the blog. Perhaps next weekend I’ll make another. But it was made with a base of pureed winter squash thinned with a little broth instead of tomato sauce, and then layered with sauteed portobella mushrooms, baby spinach, grana padano cheese, and whole wheat no-bake lasagna noodles. It was just cheesy enough without being too rich, and packed full of veggies. I also made egg muffins, which are kind of like mini crustless quiches. Just eggs whisked up with some chopped steamed kale, roasted grape tomatoes, salt, pepper, and garlic powder, all poured into muffin cups and baked. Then, just because I could, I finally made Conor’s Dreaded Sausage Rolls, although I went more traditional with sage and garlic sausage, mainly because I didn’t have fennel. They were still amazing. Almost too good to dip in HP sauce. Almost. There were even a few left over!

Thoroughly exhausted, I fell into bed on Saturday. I awoke bright and early on Sunday, and showered. I put on grubby clothes for building, and packed up my audition things in one bag, and my stage prep kits in another. Audition things were nice clothes, my everyday makeup kit, my portfolio with my audition materials, and jewelry. Stage prep included my stage makeup bag, Spanx, spare stockings, heavy-duty hairspray, and styling tools. Then, I made a cup of tea in my travel mug and pureed some mango that I had defrosted the day before. This I strained and added turmeric and ginger for a base for kefir-mango lassis for breakfasts this week. I was out the door more-or-less on time to help load the truck and move all our props, costumes, and sets to the theater.

There, we assembled the set in place, which meant I got to use the drill a lot. I like using the drill; it gives one a sense of purpose. I also got to share my egg muffins with the cast, who were dubious of the idea of kale for breakfast, but tried them just the same. Still, I’ve got a few leftover for this week’s breakfasts. I was glad to have them. I lasted much longer on two of those and a single donut than I would have if I had had only donuts to keep me running. With my travel mug of good Assam tea, I was ready for the morning. The afternoon was mostly checking costumes and props, and then we did our cue-to-cue rehearsal. I got out with just enough time to change into nicer clothes and do my makeup in the car for my audition. I did my standard minimal makeup routine, with a neutral lip, so I looked like myself, only better.

After the audition, which was blessedly shorter than I thought it would be, I made my way home, where Boyfriend had saved my the leftover sausage rolls. I scarfed them down and had a glass of homemade hard cider while dozing off to an episode of Poirot. Monday has found me ready for my week, with provisions to be well fed, and the determination to face this week head-on!